Given that lymphedema is a common aftereffect of cancer treatments, it behooves cancer patients and survivors to learn about what they can expect from lymphedema and how to combat it through lymphedema therapy.
The effects of lymphedema can be quite manageable, especially if caught early on. With a surveillance plan in place, patients will be prepared to notice any symptoms and how to start their lymphedema therapy.
Lymphedema Symptoms: What to Expect
Lymphedema is most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to your lymph nodes or lymphatic vessels as a part of cancer treatment (surgery or radiation therapy). It results from a blockage in your lymphatic system, which is part of your immune system. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining well, and the fluid buildup leads to swelling.
The lymphatic system acts as filtration for the lymph fluid and gets rid of toxins that can cause infections. Because the lymphatic system plays an essential role in maintaining health, knowing the symptoms of an impaired system can prevent the later more severe stages of lymphedema.
The initial symptoms of lymphedema can be often overlooked because they do not appear severe right away. These onset symptoms can present as physical discomfort in the affected area, an increase in infections, and swelling.
It may be easy to think that these symptoms are a natural result of cancer recovery, but if you begin to experience these symptoms, please contact a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT). They will be able to review what you are experiencing and determine if you have lymphedema. Since lymphedema is a lifelong disorder, it is better to diagnose it immediately, so that treatment can follow.
Physical Symptoms by Stages
Lymphedema is split into four stages of varying severity. The last three stages – mild, moderate, and severe – are where symptoms begin to show and increase. (The first stage is called “at-risk” and involves monitoring frequently for symptoms.)
Ideally, symptoms will be recognized and treated before the latter stages of lymphedema show. The earlier lymphedema is treated, the more likely it is to reverse the symptoms completely. Lymphedema can still be treated successfully in its later stages, and we encourage all patients to start that journey of recovery and restoration as soon as possible.
This stage of symptoms is when lymphedema first appears. As mentioned, lymphedema symptoms ofstart as an aching/heavy feeling in the arm or leg. The lymphatic fluid slowly builds up, which can cause some discomfort, swelling, and limited mobility. Symptoms of the moderate stage may appear here as well but with less intensity.
An increase in infections and decreased mobility are two moderate lymphedema symptoms. At this stage, all initial symptoms have usually become more pronounced. Tissue damage is also possible, so lymphedema cannot be reversed, only regulated.
Significant swelling that cannot be relieved is a key sign of advanced lymphedema. Other changes can occur as well, such as skin fibrosis which is a hardening of the skin and the soft tissue underneath. The fibrotic changes in the skin further block the flow of lymphatic fluid. These symptoms can be mitigated with diligent lymphedema therapy and care.
Affecting Mental Health
Maintaining mental health throughout cancer treatment and recovery is a feat of strength and courage. Lymphedema can have a negative psychosocial impact on patients. Because lymphedema symptoms affect the external appearance, confidence in physical presentation can diminish.
The physical discomfort from lymphedema can also cause mental strain. Patients in pain have reported more psychological pain than patients without pain. Encouraging patients to have a support system and healthy emotional outlets is important for a full recovery and stability.
Taking up meditation, yoga, mindfulness practices, or a consistent routine of light exercising can help increase calmness. Our guest post “Grounding Meditations During a Storm of Illness” provides information about the importance of emotional and mental health and a way to seek it out.
Based on the prospective surveillance model (PSM), Oncology Rehab and Wellness works on reaching patients before cancer treatments begin to catch symptoms before they become severe. The reason for starting the PSM before cancer treatments is to provide a baseline for measuring future symptoms and to determine the possibility of lymphedema.
Chances of getting lymphedema increase if cancer treatments will be targeting areas with lymph nodes. When the lymph nodes are damaged, lymphedema can occur within weeks to years after. Establishing a surveillance plan for frequent monitoring sets up the foundation for potential treatment.
Plan Your Lymphedema Therapy With Us
Lymphedema may be common for cancer survivors, but lymphedema therapy has shown to be an effective way to relieve symptoms. At Oncology Rehab and Wellness, we use Complete Decongestive Therapy (also called Complex Decongestive Therapy). It is a multi-functional therapy that allows us to tailor treatments to your needs.
You can read more about our lymphedema therapy services here. Our lymphedema articles are also available to peruse.
If you are a cancer patient or survivor, we invite you to a free 15-minute consultation. We would love to speak with you and determine if our services are best for you.